Thursday, December 23, 2010

A Light For Revelation to the Gentiles

In Luke 2:22-38, we read of Joseph and Mary bringing Jesus to the temple to present Him to the Lord, as the Law required for every firstborn male.  A man named Simeon, who had been promised by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Christ, was moved to go to the temple, as well.  When Simeon saw the baby, “he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said, ‘Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel’” (Luke 2:28-32).

Prior to this, the birth of Christ appeared to be a gift to the Jews alone.  Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, prophesied in Luke 1:68-79, speaking of salvation “in the house of His servant David,” “to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember His holy covenant.”  Mary, in her song of praise in 1:46-55, sings of God helping “His servant Israel.” When Gabriel is foretelling of the Lord’s birth, he reveals “He will reign over the house of Jacob forever.” 

And yet, Simeon reveals that the Child will be a light for revelation to the Gentiles, as well.  It is important to note that this was God’s plan all along.  There are some who view the offering of the gospel to the Gentiles as God’s “plan B” – the Jews rejected Christ, so God had to call for the evangelizing of the Gentiles in order to salvage His plan for salvation.  But this text in Luke 2 shows that God intended to save Gentiles long before the Jews rejected Him.

We’ve seen hints of this in our short study in Matthew the last few weeks.  The genealogy of Matt 1 includes both Jews and Gentiles, demonstrating that Christ’s family tree was not strictly Jewish.  Later in the chapter, when it is revealed to Joseph the significance of Mary’s pregnancy, the angel reveals of the baby, “He will save His people from their sins.”  This calls the readers attention back to the genealogy, hinting that this Savior will be a redeemer of all kinds of people. 

Chapter 2 supports this notion.  We saw last Sunday morning that there were three groups confronted with the Christ, all of whom responded to Him in one of two ways, rejection or worship.  Who was it that received the special revelation of the star and understood its significance?  The Gentile wise men.  Who were the only ones to worship the baby King?  The Gentile wise men.

We also find in the epistles evidence that it was always God’s intention to bring salvation to the Gentiles.  In Gal 3:8, Paul writes, And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, "In you shall all the nations be blessed."  In Eph 3, we read about “the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (vv4-5).  What is this mystery?  “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel” (v6).

But was this really God’s plan all along?  Yes.  V11, reads “This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

How then do we explain Jesus’ statement to the Canaanite woman in Matt 15:24, "I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel"?  This is a matter of chronology, not intention.  It was always God’s intention to save “the nations” (Gal 3:8; Acts 26:22-23), yet in the accomplishment of His plan, it pleased God to proclaim the gospel to the Jew first, then to the Gentile (Acts 1:8; Rom 1:16; 2:9-11). 

We have further evidence that this was God’s eternal plan in that Scripture teaches that God blinded the Jews, that He might bring the gospel to the Gentiles.  Romans 11:7-8: What then? Israel failed to obtain what it was seeking. The elect obtained it, but the rest were hardened, as it is written, "God gave them a spirit of stupor, eyes that would not see and ears that would not hear, down to this very day."  V11 adds that “through their trespass salvation has come to the Gentiles.”  In His providence, God has brought about this chain of events “in order to make known the riches of His glory for vessels of mercy, which He prepared beforehand for glory – even us whom He has called, not from the Jews only but also from the Gentiles” (Rom 9:23-24).

This is why it is appropriate for us to consider that the Christ was sent to us, as a matter of God’s eternal elective purpose, rather than as an afterthought.  God is not like a man whose plans don’t always pan out.  Salvation history is not the story of how God’s hopes were riding on the Jews, yet against His intention, they rejected Christ, forcing Him to seek an alternative so that the incarnation would not go to waste.  No, it was all His plan from eternity past, and it has all, is all, and will all come to pass exactly as He desires. 

It is this magnificent tapestry of salvation that moves Paul to exclaim, Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!  For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?  Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Rom 11:33-36)

There is so much meaning, history, prophecy, and providence present in the manger scene.  Just a small Jewish child asleep on the hay – and yet the singular hope for the eternal reconciliation of Jew and Gentile in one body to God. 

I’m looking forward to worshiping Him with you on Christmas Eve.  Oh, come let us adore Him.

Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Matthew 1 Paternity Gap

It is always true that when an expository message is preached, there is much that could be said that is left unsaid due to time constraints.  Last Sunday’s message is no different.  So here are a few of the things that were not said.

Remember that the genealogy in the first half of Matthew 1 served to demonstrate Christ’s humanity.  His family tree looked much like yours and mine – a wide array of imperfect people, most of whom were characterized by their vices rather than their virtues.  In fact, that was Matthew’s point in relating the genealogy as he did.  We further noted that Matthew offered that genealogy to trace the line from Abraham through David to Jesus, showing the Jesus was the seed promised to Abraham and the rightful heir to the throne of David.

But v16 would seem to throw a wrench into the works: …And Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ.  There’s a problem.  Through the whole genealogy, we see “so-and-so was the father of so-and-so.”  That’s a translation of the Greek, which says, “so-and-so beget so-and-so.”  Each time, there’s a father begetting a son.  Until we get to v16.  There’s a gap.  And Jacob beget Joseph, the husband of Mary, from whom Jesus was begotten.  In other words, the pattern of father begets son stops with Joseph.  He doesn’t beget anyone.  Mary begets Jesus. 

This leads to an important question: how can Jesus be considered the son of David and the son of Abraham, and therefore have a right to the throne, if Joseph did not beget Him, if there is a break in the line?   Doesn’t this paternity gap ruin the point that Matthew is making?

This gap has much to do with why the angel appeared to Joseph in a dream.  He said to Joseph in vv20-12, "Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."   There are two notable things here.  First, the angel addresses Joseph as “son of David,” reminding the reader that Joseph is a direct blood descendent of David, as was just demonstrated in the genealogy.  This connection is key. 

Second, the revelation of the angel serves to do more than put Joseph’s mind at ease.  It serves to prompt him to take Mary as his wife.  The revelation that she has conceived by the Holy Spirit shows Joseph that Mary has not committed adultery, therefore he is still contractually obligated to marry her.  That Joseph understood this to be the angel’s meaning is shown in v24, When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife.  Further, the angel commanded Joseph to call the baby “Jesus.”  V25 records Joseph’s obedience to this command.  That is significant because the naming of a child was the prerogative of the father.  That means that Joseph claimed Jesus as his own.  He would raise the child as his son (Luke 3:23; John 1:45; 6:42).

So how did this remedy the paternity gap in v16?  Joseph’s adoption of Jesus provided for His legal claim to the throne of David.  An adopted son was afforded all the blessings and rights of a natural son – which is why we, as the adopted children of God, are joint heirs with Christ! (Gal 4:7; Rom 8:16-17; Eph 1:3; Titus 3:4-7)

Another good question related to v16: why was the gap necessary?  Christ’s paternity was essential to His mission.  As I pointed out Sunday, only a man who was God and only a God who was a man could save us from our sins.  He had to be a man to be a valid substitute for us (Heb 2:14-17).  And He had to be God in order to pay our infinite debt of sin (Rom 8:3-4).  Therefore, He had to be the Son of God. 

But there is another reason for that gap.  In order to pay the debt of sin, Jesus had to be sinless (Heb 4:14-15; 7:25-28).  He had to be born without the tainting of original sin and He had to actively obey the Father for His entire life.  A human father would have passed on original sin, making Christ’s substitution for us impossible – there would have been no righteousness for Him to impute to us (Rom 5:19; 1 Cor 1:30; Phil 3:8-9; 1 Pe 3:18; 2 Pe 1:1; 1 Jo 2:1).

But what about Mary?  Wasn’t she a sinner?  How could Jesus be born of a woman and not receive a sin nature from her?  This is a good question and one that led the Catholic church to conclude that Mary was sinless.  The problem with this conclusion is three-fold.  First, it does not solve the problem – if Jesus had to have two sinless parents in order to be sinless, then Mary needed to have two sinless parents in order to be sinless.  If you take that to its logical conclusion, Adam and Eve had to be sinless since they were the parents of all the parents that eventually led to the birth of Mary.  Second, it fails to recognize that Scripture gives no indication that Mary was sinless.  Third, and most importantly, it fails to understand how sin is passed down from generation to generation. 

If we take a look at how sin entered the world, we see that Adam is the one who passed original sin on to mankind, not Eve.  We all know that Eve sinned first – she ate of the forbidden fruit and then gave to her husband and he ate (Gen 3:6).  Based on that chronology, we might think that Eve would be recognized as the one through whom sin entered the world.  However, the New Testament shows that this is not the case.  Romans 5:12 tells us that “sin came into the world through one man.” Likewise, in 1 Cor 15:22, we find that “in Adam all die” – that is, by virtue of the human race being born from Adam, all are dead in sin.  We see then that original sin is not passed down from the mother, but through the father.  For that reason, there had to be a paternity gap between Joseph and Jesus.

There are many magnificent aspects of Christ’s birth to meditate on in this season.  As with the atonement, the events surrounding the entry of the Messiah into the world show the manifold wisdom and love of God.  Have you taken time yet to ponder these things in your heart (Luke 2:19, 51)?

Posted by Greg Birdwell

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Cookies and Carols Is On!

Cookies and Carols are a go! We have a green light and the event will start as planned at 6:00pm.

The snow is falling but the roads are clear. Bundle up, bring the cookies, get ready for the carols, and let's see the Christmas spirit!

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Worry and Pride

          Most of us are aware of that often quoted verse in 1 Peter 5 that exhorts us to cast all our anxieties upon Him.  When conversing about worry and anxiety in a Sunday School setting, we can all give the right answer, that it is a sin to not trust God with our concerns.  Yet, the knee-jerk reaction in times of trouble is to hold onto them.  We may try to give our anxieties to the Lord, only to find ourselves relieving Him of the burden and taking them back on our own shoulders.  Why is it that we find it so difficult to cast our anxieties upon Him and leave them there?
          The answer is that our root problem is not anxiety.  It’s pride.  Anxiety is a manifestation of pride.  The truth of that is found in the very passage from which we quote the famous exhortation to “cast all your anxieties upon Him…”  Close inspection will show that we’ve been quoting it wrong, which is why we’ve failed to understand the issue.
          1 Peter 5:6-7 reads, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties upon Him, because He cares for you.”  The imperative here is not to cast your anxieties upon Him, but to humble yourself.  Peter is exhorting the reader to assume a posture of humility before the Lord.  “Casting all your anxieties upon Him” is a participial phrase that modifies the main verb “humble.”  We humble ourselves under the mighty hand of God by casting all our anxieties upon Him.   
          Now that we understand the grammar, what is the connection between humility and trusting God with our problems?  At first glance, the two things may seem unrelated.
          These verses give us two reasons to trust God, and they work in tandem.  One without the other leaves us with no ground for comfort.  First, God is powerful.  The text tells us to humble ourselves under the might hand of God.  This speaks of God’s ability to help us.  He spoke all things into existence and upholds the existence of all things by the word of His power (Gen 1; Heb 1:3).  Surely dealing with my temporal concerns poses no strain for Almighty God.
          Second, God cares for His children.  How many times have we noted that God has marshalled all His resources to accomplish His great purpose for us, our transformation into the likeness of His Son?  All salvation history has proven His indomitable care for us.  As Paul notes in Romans 8:32, God’s grace toward us in Christ in the past proves that His loving disposition toward us is guaranteed in the future – “He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things?”
          So God is all-powerful and God cares for us.  As mentioned above, one of these without the other is of little comfort.  If God were all-powerful but did not care for us, we would have great reason for anxiety.  Because of our sin against Him we could and should expect His power to be used against us, not for us.  On the other hand, if God cared for us but was not all-powerful, we might appreciate the sentiment, but casting any anxieties upon Him would be a fruitless exercise since He would not have the ability to do anything about them.  
          But when we put those two truths together – that God is all-power and He cares for us – we find that He has both the ability and the inclination to work all things for our good, just as He has promised (Rom 8:28-30).  
          And this is why it is so incredibly prideful to take our anxieties upon ourselves and not cast them upon Him.  When we do this we are making the implicit statement that even though God is almighty and supremely loving toward us, we are better equipped to deal with the situation than He is.  Our actions simultaneously deny that He is powerful and caring, and exalt us above Him.  
          When we are struggling with anxiety or worry, we should first repent of our pride.  We should confess our implicit denial that He is powerful and loving.  We should ask forgiveness for thinking more highly of ourselves than of Him.  Then we should purpose to humble ourselves, by trusting Him with what concerns us, purposefully mindful of His mighty and caring hand.

Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, December 2, 2010

He Graciously Blesses


Last Sunday, I was not able to get all the way through Judges 5 in the sermon, so I’d like to cover the last point here.  (You can read the entire text of Judges 5 here, and if you have not heard the message yet, you can find it here.)

The main question confronting us in the text was, “why is God to be praised for man’s obedience of faith?”  v2 reads, “That the leaders took the lead in Israel, that the people offered themselves willingly, bless the Lord!”  The text gives credit to God for the actions of the Israelites.  This makes a profound statement about the nature of God’s grace.  God is to be praised for man’s obedience of faith because God is Himself the giver of it. 

We then looked at two of three contrasts in the text that develop this picture of God’s grace.  In the first contrast between the all-powerful Yahweh and the powerless Israelites (vv4-8), we found that God is to be praised because He is powerful to save.  Man is so incapable of helping himself that if salvation is going to happen, it must take place by the hand of God alone.

In the second contrast between those who volunteered and those who did not (vv9-23), we found that God is to be praised because He creates the willing.  Because man is dead in his trespasses and sins, unable to come to God in faith, his salvation requires a work of God, regenerating him and giving him the gift of repentance and faith.  The only difference between those tribes who followed God in obedience and those who did not is that God awakened some and allowed others to continue in their sin.

Now we move on to the third contrast, between two women – an unlikely heroine and a self-deceived mother, and we find that God is to be praised because He graciously blesses.  The poetic re-telling of Jael’s killing of Sisera begins in v24:

  24 "Most blessed of women be Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, of tent-dwelling women most blessed.
 25 He asked water and she gave him milk; she brought him curds in a noble's bowl.
 26 She sent her hand to the tent peg and her right hand to the workmen's mallet; she struck Sisera; she crushed his head; she shattered and pierced his temple.
 27 Between her feet he sank, he fell, he lay still; between her feet he sank, he fell; where he sank, there he fell--dead.

Remember that the main idea of the chapter is still that God is to be praised for man’s obedience of faith.  And yet, here, the text says, “Most blessed of women be Jael.”  This speaks not of praise for Jael, but of reward, similar to the blessings promised in Deut 28 to those who obey the Lord. 

And for what reason is Jael blessed?  Clearly it is for her actions in killing Sisera, as so much emphasis is given to describing it.  Four different verbs – struck, crushed, shattered, and pierced – are used to detail the act of driving the tent peg through his head.  Likewise, v27 repetitively describes his death – he sank, he fell, he lay still, he sank, he fell, he sank, he fell – dead. 

Now we’ve already seen that God is ultimately the one who creates the willing.  And we know from ch4 that God was orchestrating Jael’s actions before the battle between the Canaanites and Israelites ever started (ch1 also notes the providential settling of the Kenites with the Israelites in the Canaan land [1:16]).  5:2 makes it clear that God is to be praised for this victory…and yet, Jael is blessed for her obedience.

God’s grace is unfathomable.  Not only does He save, not only does enable our obedience, but He also rewards our faithfulness. 

We noted a few weeks ago, that we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ, “so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Cor 5:10).  According to 1 Cor 3:10-15, our works in this life will be passed through the fire.  “If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward.  If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire” (vv14-15).  In the context of Judges 4, we focused on the potential for loss on that day.  The blessing of Jael in Judges 5 points us to the other possibility, that we stand to be rewarded for the work we’ve done in this life. 

Consider the difference God’s grace makes.  We deserve to be condemned to a place of eternal, physical torment…but by God’s grace we don’t get that.  But not only are we spared that horror, we are given the hope of eternal paradise in the presence of God, joy inexpressible for all time.  Further, we are made fellow heirs with Christ, becoming recipients of every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places (Eph 1:3-14).  And on top of all that, we are rewarded for deeds that resulted from His working in us (Phil 2:13).   Astounding.  Certainly, God is to be praised.

In the closing lines, God’s justice is demonstrated against those who chose to oppose Him:

  28 "Out of the window she peered, the mother of Sisera wailed through the lattice: 'Why is his chariot so long in coming? Why tarry the hoofbeats of his chariots?'
 29 Her wisest princesses answer, indeed, she answers herself,
 30 'Have they not found and divided the spoil?-- A womb or two for every man; spoil of dyed materials for Sisera, spoil of dyed materials embroidered, two pieces of dyed work embroidered for the neck as spoil?'

The finality of Sisera’s defeat is amplified by this ironic scene of his mother waiting for him to return from the battle.  The implication is that she knows he is gone, but she tries to convince herself that he is just engaging in the barbaric activities that always follow a victory – the taking of the spoils and the violating of the women.  She comforts herself by imagining that he is victimizing others.  This serves to remind us that those who receive the wrath of God will do so justly, and He is to be praised for His justice.

The poem ends with a thematic statement, "So may all your enemies perish, O LORD! But your friends be like the sun as he rises in his might." And the land had rest for forty years.

All God’s enemies will perish and all His friends will be like the sun.  All of them will deserve eternal destruction, but some will be transformed by God’s gracious choice.

I’ll repeat here the conclusion from Sunday.  If there is anything worthwhile in your life, praise the Lord.  If you have been saved from your sin and grown in the likeness of Christ, praise the Lord.  If you have been a blessing in the lives of others by deed, by word, or by example, praise the Lord.  Lift up your voice and give praise where praise is due – bless the LORD! 

Posted by Greg Birdwell

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

God's Sovereignty and Man's Freedom

In light of the subject matter of the sermon on Sunday, I thought it might be helpful to repost a blog series I wrote last year regarding the relationship between God's sovereignty and man's freedom.

Part 1    Part 2     Part 3

Posted by Greg Birdwell

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